2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI

NRCan Fuel Consumption Estimate: 6.7/4.7 L/100 km city/highway
US EPA Fuel Consumption Estimate: 7.8/5.6/6.9 L/100 km city/highway/combined
Observed Real-World Consumption: 6.1 L/100 km (over 1,000 km commuting and long-distance highway)

Although we have long been fans of torquey, fuel efficient diesel powertrains, we had a chance to wow a few colleagues with the Volkswagen Golf TDI’s combination of driving dynamics and efficiency. Anyone who drove it wanted to keep it. Because of its popularity, we racked up over 1,000 km, much of it at very high cruising speeds, and it still kept overall consumption in check at 6.1 L/100 km, though one long-distance highway run clocked a 5.1 L/100 km, within spitting distance of its NRCan estimates of 6.7 L/100 km city, 4.7 L/100 km highway.

2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI
2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI, photo by JC. Click image to enlarge

The reason everyone wanted to drive it was its quick, light steering, excellent acceleration punch and rewarding dynamics. It’s not a GTI, but it still has that same rock solid chassis and an everyday drivability that includes joy as part of the experience.

While Volkswagen’s diesel engine is unique in the North American compact segment, diesels account for about half the vehicle sales in Europe, are available in a growing number of premium brands here, and some analysts predict that diesel sales in North America will explode, reaching as high as 12 percent market share by 2018, up from the current 3 percent. As gas prices rise, so will sales of diesels, and Volkswagen has a lock on the market as the diesel brand.

What can you expect from a modern clean diesel? Awesome torque, for starters. And while diesels have come a long way in recent years, there is still a low-rpm grumble and coarseness that is never entirely banished, although it is something that many turbocharged gasoline direct-injection engines also exhibit. Of course, diesels are the forerunners that have paved the way for many of the current crop of technologies being applied to gasoline engines, like direct fuel injection, turbocharging, and high compression ratio.

Unlike gasoline engines, in which a spark plug initiates combustion, diesel engines compress the air to such a volatile pressure that simply spraying the fuel into the cylinder is enough to set off the combustion reaction—the Golf TDI reaches a compression ratio of 16.5:1. In order to burn more evenly, diesels have been engineered to spray the fuel more finely using direct injection (that can spray fuel at incredibly high pressure) and using turbos to force even more air into the cylinder for better, more complete combustion—the reason for their greater efficiency.

2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI
2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI
2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI. Click image to enlarge

Why do diesels produce more torque? In order to reach those higher compression ratios, the piston stroke is longer, so there is more leverage on the crankshaft, turning the crank with greater torque, and conveniently at lower rpms.

Volkswagen offers their diesels in four sizes: small, medium, large, and extra large. The small Golf, medium Jetta and Golf Wagon, and large Passat all use the same 2.0L turbocharged direct injection inline-four making 140 hp @ 4,000 rpm and 236 lb-ft of torque at 1,750–2,500 rpm. The XL Touareg gets a V6 turbodiesel at 225 hp and 406 lb-ft at 1,750–2,250 rpm. The 2.0L TDI, as in the Golf TDI Highline we drove, is available with a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed Direct Sequential Gearbox, an automated manual.

One common complaint about TDIs is that the diesel engine is only available on higher-trim models, meaning the price starts in the $25K neighbourhood. The cheapest TDI you can get into is the Jetta Comfortline TDI with six-speed manual at $23,875 (then add freight and taxes), and the price of entry for a Golf TDI is $25,425. Our Golf TDI Highline DSG came in at $33,150 as tested, but there is no denying it featured suitable levels of equipment to justify that price, not to mention the traditional VW build and materials quality that you will not find on the Jetta or even Passat.

About the only criticism we had was that it can take some trial and error to find gas stations with diesel pumps, and being a compact, it is not the most spacious backseat, but well within norms for the compact class. As we said earlier, everyone who drove it wanted to keep it, including me. Long-Term Test, anyone?

Price: 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI Highline DSG
Base price: $30,795
Options: $890 (Navigation)
Destination: $1,365
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $33,150

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